February 25, 2009 | Comments ()

By Dustin Rowles | Books | February 25, 2009 |


Sometimes I become interested in a book based on title alone. I think it was a blurb in EW that I first read of Say You’re One Of Them and I became intrigued by the premise and found the title to be wonderfully evocative and frightening at the same time. So I tried to get the book from my local library but it was on order with no release date. After tiring of waiting, I finally ordered it from Amazon after Christmas. The book was both what I expected and nothing that I was ready for.

The book consists of five short stories told from the perspective of children in Africa and gives a human view of such horrifying topics as ethnic cleansing, child slavery, extreme poverty, and religious warfare. Often the title of a book bluntly describes the contents or a specific subject of the book. However the phrase “Say you’re one of them” or a similar sentiment is invoked at some point in all of the stories and underlines the premise of an “us vs them” mentality and in many of the stories the children’s only hope of survival is by blending with “them” and hiding their otherness.

The first story, “An Ex-Mas Feast” describes a family on the streets in the slums of Kenya on Christmas Eve, as told by Jigana, an 8 year old boy. It establishes quickly that these stories will not shy away from the horror it describes, nor will it glorify or present it as mere titillation. Like a reporter, Nigerian author and Jesuit priest Uwem Akpan recounts the details of this family’s life as simple fact, with little commentary or expression on how the reader should feel. The family expresses gratitude when they are given a gift of glue from one of the other poor families. They take turns, including the children and babies, inhaling the fumes deeply because this holds off hunger. The oldest daughter is 12 and works as a prostitute, a profession that the parents encourage but ultimately tears the family apart.

The second story, “Fattening for Gabon” is really a novella. Told from the perspective of 8 year old Kotchikpa, it tells the story of 2 children and their uncle, Fofo Kpee, who sells them into slavery. The story plays out like a thriller, with the children first delighted by the attention the slave traders lavish on them. They are told these are NGO activists and are coming to take the children away to Gabon where they will live a life of luxury. It is only as their Uncle begins to have doubts that the plan goes awry and the truth becomes clear to the children. Calling the story harrowing is an understatement. The nonchalant nature of the deal, and the way that so many adults work to deceive the children is repellent. But again, Akpan takes no side in the matter which makes the story even more effective.

The longest story in the book is “Luxurious Hearses” and it is here that I was having a hard time shaking the spell of the book. It tells the story of Jubril, a teenage fundamentalist Muslim fleeing northern Nigeria for the southern villages during a religious riot. Because his father was Christian, he is forced to flee his home and ends up on a bus full of Christians also fleeing to the south. He is forced to try and blend in, a task made much more difficult because his right hand was lopped off when he was arrested for stealing a goat months before.

Jubril is a “good” Muslim in that he hates Christians and is a strong believer in Sharia law, the idea that a country should be governed by strict fundamentalist Islamic teachings. On the bus he is forced to confront women in western style clothing, television, and Christian views which challenges his world view. And through it all he has to keep his right arm in his pocket to hide his stump, because if the other passengers see it they will know he is Muslim and kill him.

This story throws the idea of religious way and ethnic cleansing into stark relief, forcing you to change your perspective on right and wrong. There are few things I hate more than religious fundamentalism in any form. Be it Christian, Muslim, or cultist, I simply do not believe that ancient doctrine has any place in modern society. Believe what you want to believe but leave the rest of us out of it. Unfortunately, the very foundation of religion fundamentalism is to spread the word so like a virus these radical views infect millions. “Luxurious Hearses” is about taking that crucial step away from radical intolerance and understanding that we are all at our core human beings. The shattering conclusion just underlines this revelation making what has come before all the more tragic.

The book wraps up with a story set during the ethnic cleansing in Rwanda and as harrowing and horrific as it is, I was numb after “Luxurious Hearses.”

Through these fictional stories, Uwem Akpan shines a light on the dark continent forcing western readers to look at the horrors and not turn away. It is a read I won’t soon forget.

For further details, and to read the first story in the collection, “An Ex-Mas Feast,” please visit www.sayyoureoneofthem.com

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. Details are here and the growing number of participants and their blogs are here. And check here for more of Tyler DFC’s reviews.

Also, Tyler DFC has his own pop-culture blog, RUFKM. Check out his review of Sharks in Venice.

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100 Books in One Year: Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan

Cannonball Read / TylerDFC

Books | February 25, 2009 | Comments ()



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